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They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

- Benjamin Franklin

Central to civilized law is the notion that a person cannot be held without a charge and cannot be detained indefinitely without a trial. These principles date back to Greco-Roman times, were developed by English common law beginning in 1215 with the Magna Carta, and were universalized by the Enlightenment in the century before the American Constitution and Bill of Rights were fought for and adopted as the supreme law of the land.

For more than two centuries of constitutional development since then, the United States has been heralded as the light to the world precisely because of the liberties it enshrined in its Declaration of Independence and Constitution as inalienable. It now seems as if the events of 9/11 have been determined to be of such a threatening magnitude that our national leaders feel justified to abrogate in their entirety the very inalienable principles upon which our Republic was founded.

- Jim Garrison, "Obama's most fateful decision," The Huffington Post December 12, 2011

“The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it,” Mr. Obama said in a statement issued in Hawaii, where he is on vacation. “I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.” . . .

The president, for example, said that he would never authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens, because “doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.”

- Mark Landler, "After Struggle on Detainees, Obama Signs Defense Bill," The New York Times December 31, 2011

What are the natural limits to freedom? )

Now, what if the U.S. government believes that an American citizen is planning a deadly terrorist attack? If the evidence of this was lawfully obtained and is reasonably solid, the police have every right to arrest him, charge him with a crime, and put him on trial. This allows the man to go free if the government made a mistake; his freedom will only be limited for a short period, unless he's found guilty of a plot to commit mass murder, using public evidence and arguments. But let's say the government doesn't think it can build its case before a jury, maybe because the evidence was obtained using an unconstitutional warrantless search, or because it involves classified information and revealing that information would somehow compromise national security. So it decides to classify the man as an "enemy combatant" and have the military lock him up indefinitely.

On the one hand, if the man is guilty, limiting his freedom seems better than letting him go free, allowing the attack to go forward, and eliminating the freedom of the people who end up dead as a result. But on the other hand, from the perspective of the public at large, it looks like the government may have made an unfounded accusation against an innocent man, and imprisoned him for life for no good reason. Maybe he was a prominent critic of the government whose criticism was becoming inconvenient, or maybe some government official just had had some private grievance against him.

So unless the government can stomach having a public trial, or find some other option that prevents the attack without violating anyone's civil liberties, we will be faced with an apparent failure of the central principles that make this a "free country." The fact is that indefinite detention without trial means we have no way to know whether the government is saving us from terrorism or turning into a fascist regime--or both. That's why we must fight hard to restore our basic rights--because otherwise, we'll never again be able to trust the people who are supposedly "defending our freedom."
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"Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public."
        - Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company internal memo

"Gate? What gate?"
        - The Monster in the Darkness, in the webcomic Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew

There's no use at this point trying to ignore "Climate-Gate" or claim it's somehow meaningless. The timing, so close to the opening of the Copenhagen climate negotiations, is highly suspicious, but if the emails were faked, the University of East Anglia would surely have said so. It seems likely enough that the hacker who "liberated" them waited until a politically propitious moment to release them to the world, but that doesn't change the importance of what they say.

On the other hand, it's foolish to claim, as countless conservatives are now doing, that the emails prove anything in particular about the future of climate change. What they do is increase the uncertainty. Scientists at one of several important climate research centers, frustrated by complex and inconclusive data sets and angry about the continued threats to their efforts to convince themselves their research was of epic global importance, made some very bad decisions that make them look like Michael Crichton villains. This does not prove that all the data on which the IPCC based its most recent statements about the likelihood that humans are warming the Earth is automatically discredited. It certainly doesn't mean we can use the recent tree-ring data, which for whatever reason flatly contradicts measurements from actual thermometers (and glaciers), to argue that the world has actually been cooling during the 20th century.

After all, science itself is not actually in the business of proving anything. A scientific "fact" is only accepted as long as no evidence comes along to falsify it, and no part of the scientific edifice is immune from that possibility. The basic theory of evolution, for example, is considered to be "fact" because we've seen enough evidence, in both the fossil record and short-life-cycle species living today, that supports it. The theory of anthropogenic global warming has been moving in the direction of fact for decades, had nearly reached it with the most recent IPCC report and its 90% certainty level, and has now taken a step in the opposite direction; how large a step is presently hard to say.

But as politically unfortunate as this may seem for progressives, and as much as people with little understanding of the scientific method may try to distort the situation with simplistic sound bites, the trend toward sustainability is far from over. Clean renewable energy, in particular, still looks like a good move to people living in areas prone to asthma from smog or cancer from oil processing chemicals, as well as windy or sunny regions with depressed job markets. For the U.S. government, pollutants other than CO2 ought to provide ample reason to maintain the moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. And as for the international community, it has basically already given itself a one-year deadline extension, so the massive ramp-up in the climate movement's activities during 2009 may yet have time to take greater effect, as well as adjusting its rhetoric to the ever-shifting, always approximate scientific picture of reality.

It's hard to make major policy decisions, or take decisive action of any kind, in an uncertain world. But as long as the Age of Reason lasts, we will have to continually face that challenge and balance the probabilities as best we can.
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Okay, so the first one is obvious if you think about it. Some government subsidies distort the market by giving a blanket incentive for companies to do something that makes no economic or ecological sense:

"Because of special corporate income tax credits and deductions, oil companies pay an effective income tax rate of 11 percent, compared with an average of 18 percent for other companies. . . . On top of these tax preferences, the Department of Energy spends more than $100 million a year to develop and improve oil production techniques, while the Army Corps of Engineers pays for infrastructure improvements related to the shipping of oil. These and other subsidies help keep the price of oil artificially cheap.

"Water is also often heavily subsidized, especially for agriculture . . . Because the government does not charge the full price of the water it provides, farmers have not always had sufficient incentive to conserve or to install more efficient irrigation systems. And manufacturers have not had enough of a financial incentive to develop water-saving devices. . . . Especially in arid parts of the country like California and the Southwest, it is silly to have a subsidized price system that encourages inefficient use of such an important resource as water. . . . there is much to be gained by eliminating subsidies and setting the price of water accurately.

"Germany has addressed a more subtle form of subsidy. In the United States manufacturers generally do not have to pay for the disposal of what they sell. Instead, . . . the costs of garbage pickup and disposal are covered by tax dollars or fees. A landmark 1991 German law makes producers responsible for the packaging they generate. They must either reuse it or pay for recycling it."

So what about taxes, specifically a tax on pollution? Well, the key phrase here is "internalizing externalities":

"From an economist's standpoint, a well-crafted tax is an easy and fair way to increase the price of a polluting activity so that it includes those external social costs that would otherwise be ignored. Economists also like the fact that even as taxes provide financial reasons to take better care of the environment, they ultimately leave the final decision on what to buy and do up to consumers acting through the free market. MIT economics professor Paul Krugman* has observed that 'virtually every card-carrying economist' believes pollution taxes are a good idea. . . .

"To reduce the fears associated with environmental taxes, most proponents these days talk in terms of 'tax shifting'--the idea that government should reduce other levies, such as the income tax, at the same time that it raises taxes on polluting activities. . . . Of course, any tax shifting would need to be done carefully, and strategies would need to be instituted to compensate low-income Americans who do not pay income taxes but who would have to pay the new environmental taxes."

Both sets of quotes are from The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Michael Brower, Ph.D. and Warren Leon, Ph.D., Chapter 7: What You Can Ask Government to Do


*I have to note here some possible bias: according to the linked article, while greatly respected as an economist, "Krugman is known to be pronouncedly liberal in his political views."
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Speaking of famous Churchill quotes (though according to the linked page, Churchill claimed to have gotten this one from somewhere else): if you feel like a heaping helping of disillusionment, check out this post by [livejournal.com profile] bdunbar, summarizing what is probably the true story of Love Canal, despite the fact that Reason Magazine is the major source cited.*  The gist is that the company that produced the toxic waste was forced to sell the land by the threat of eminent domain, despite their objections that it was clearly unsuitable for building a school on.

The worst thing about this story is that the local government's "desperate" need for any available land was driven by the will of the people, specifically their desire to immigrate to Niagara Falls and/or have lots of babies.  Democracy sometimes leads to really stupidly short-sighted government actions, no doubt about it.  (Incidentally, Churchill thought short-sightedness is something we just have to live with.  I couldn't disagree more--some aspects of the future are definitely predictable enough to act on.)

To my mind, however, the best solution to keep this sort of thing from happening again is a policy of transparency/open government (see page 4 of the linked document), so when our elected officials are trying to do something ridiculous like build a school and a neighborhood on top of a toxic waste dump, it has to tell us that that's what it's doing.  That way we can stop it before it starts, rather than discovering what happened twenty-five years later, when the horrible consequences finally come into the open.

(Of course, limits placed on any conceivable transparency program in the name of national security mean that it won't help us prevent other outrages, such as government spying on Americans without a warrant.  For that, we'll still have to wait for a leak [pun only slightly intended] to the press, and then hope it's possible to embarrass our representatives into stopping it, or replace them with others who will.)

The other good solution to the specific problem of toxic waste, of course, is to make it food for another industrial process.

* The author of the Reason article admits that "Hooker Chemicals may very well have botched others of its many chemical dumps," and that "The customary practices [at the time] were to pile up such wastes in unlined surface impoundments, insecure lagoons, or pits, usually on the premises of the chemical factory, or else to burn the wastes or dump them into rivers or lakes."  But that's not what Hooker did at Love Canal.  (Okay, that sentence just sounds wrong...)


P.S. Things I did not know (earlier) this morning: Pi day (3/14) is also Albert Einstein's birthday.  I wonder if he was born at 1:59...
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One would assume that frugality, being closely akin to "voluntary simplicity," would be an ideal that any environmentalist could wholeheartedly support. The problem is, though, that frugality doesn't always mean buying less stuff. Sometimes you buy something cheap, when a more expensive alternative would actually be better both for you and for nature.

Some pricey green products offer a sort of deferred frugality: hybrid cars save you money at the gas pump, while compact fluorescent lightbulbs last longer and reduce your electric bill. Whether these effects are enough to make green the cheapest way to go is somewhat arguable, but certainly possible.

Sometimes, though, the financial tradeoff ends up being largely absent. Solar panels, while they can decrease your electric bill, take many years to pay for themselves because the initial cost of installation is so high. With organic food, the only benefit is a possible decrease in medical bills that might result from lowering your daily dose of deadly agricultural chemicals--but at least in Los Angeles, the air is a far greater threat to one's long-term health prospects than the food. So sometimes, going green is about giving up frugality and donating a little more of your hard-earned cash to support a cause you believe in. It's like charity, except that in this case you get a box of pasta or a shiny roof ornament in return.
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"Pollution is not, as we are so often told, a product of moral turpitude. It is an inevitable consequence of life at work. The second law of thermodynamics clearly states that the low entropy and intricate, dynamic organization of a living system can only function through the excretion of low-grade products and low-grade energy to the environment. Criticism is only justified if we fail to find neat and satisfactory solutions which eliminate the problem while turning it to advantage. To grass, beetles, and even farmers, the cow's dung is not pollution but a valued gift. In a sensible world, industrial waste would not be banned but put to good use. The negative, unconstructive response of prohibition by law seems as idiotic as legislating against the emission of dung from cows."

- James Lovelock, Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, which I have finally gotten around to purchasing and reading.
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There are global-warming skeptics. Some of them are scientists. Some of them accept that some warming is happening, but argue that it's a temporary variation unrelated to greenhouse-gas emissions, similar to the Medieval Warm Period.

Whether any of the skeptics are actually credible, I don't know. But I find myself in the awkward position of hoping that they're wrong, and for pretty much the reason you'd expect: if it's conclusively demonstrated that global warming is nonexistent or that it won't get much worse before it cycles back, then all of those who have campaigned so hard to raise awareness about a supposedly impending catastrophe will be laughed out of their jobs. More broadly, the credibility of environmentalists worldwide will be almost completely destroyed. As a result, the political will to act on issues other than climate change is also likely to vanish.

To understand the severity of this problem, consider what the nonexistence of global warming would and wouldn't mean:

It would mean...It wouldn't mean...
...that there's no pressing need to slow or halt carbon-dioxide emissions....that we can just stop worrying about the fact that the oil is running out, or ignore the health effects of coal-based power.
...that sea levels probably won't rise significantly this century....that there will always be enough land even as the scale of the human presence continues to expand.
...that the rate of severe droughts and resulting crop failures won't rise much further....that our current strategy of growing vast monoculture fields and destroying topsoil is a good idea.
...that the incidence of tropical diseases won't increase much more as a result of climate change....that the problems of AIDS, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and illnesses caused by industrial chemicals in our environment will just go away.
...that the Amazon will not just dry up and blow away, and coral reef bleaching should slow down soon....that biodiversity loss due to deliberate habitat destruction will stop anytime soon, unless we do something about it.

So what can environmentalists do about all this? If the skeptics win, we will need to distance ourselves from climate scientists and rally around a new, more concrete cause, most likely the simple question of how to avoid using up our natural resources. On the other hand, if global warming is real but won't be indisputably obvious for another few decades, then we simply have to stay the course and knock down the skeptics one by one.

Clearly, it would be good to know for certain one way or the other, but science isn't like that. I'll post more when I've done my homework and come to a conclusion about which outcome seems more likely.
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Link to version 1

Humanity is not just the passengers and crew of the Titanic.  We're also the primary forces--the iceberg and the cold ocean--that are bringing the ship down.

Yes, I've decided we're already sinking.  The iceberg was the Industrial Revolution itself, which has been tearing a wider and wider gash in the hull ever since, letting an ocean of dangerous chemicals pour into Nature and thence into our own bodies.  Unless we can throw together a lot more lifeboats, we're going down with the ship, which might also be named Gaia.

At this point, it looks like steering the boat away from the iceberg won't help much.  What needs doing is a crash effort to bail out the flooded areas and repair the leak.  That is, we need to clean up the existing mess we've made of our air, water, and soil and take drastic steps to ensure that we don't just mess it up again immediately.  Every "pollutant" that can be recycled into useful materials, should be.  Whatever's left should be buried as deep as possible or, preferably, launched into the Sun.

That's not to say I don't support the lifeboat idea too, but that's our emergency backup.  We should start building sealed-off, self-sufficient underground towns now so we can get the hang of it; the plus side is that future Mars colonists will need that skill too.  Are you listening, President Bush?

Essay 2

May. 19th, 2006 04:43 pm
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This next one is much longer and was my final paper for Intro Environmental Studies.  It was titled "Can humanity become independent of the natural environment?"


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